SEAWOLF BACKGROUNDER ON ORCA CALF A-73, March 28,2002

SeaWolf Backgrounder on Orca Calf A-73 by Michael Kundu, SeaWolf Director

I've summarized some data about Springer below - the extent that we have come to understand to date. The current situation with Springer is that we are currently operating in the observation-assessment stage. For the past two weeks, our directors Bob McLaughlin (pilot of the Glacier Bay catamaran 'SeaWolf') and Bob Wood (pilot of the Hinkley Talaria 'Shelmar') have voluntarily provided platforms for National Marine Fisheries Service researchers and observers in order to monitor her physical and behavioural condition. Ironically, yesterday was the last day of this formal observation agreement, and we are now scrambling to get a schedule of further observations developed, mostly since the resources that NMFS has for this effort appear to be limited.

Springer is a northern resident orca who was apparently born somewhere off British Columbia's Vancouver Island in 2000, to her mother A-45. Researchers did not observe her in British Columbia waters 2001, and based on adopted interpretation, that absence leads researchers to believe her mother is probably dead. In January 2002, Springer was first spotted off Vashon Island, and now, the mystery of what to do for her continues.

Unlike our own southern resident whales, Springer is 300 miles away from her own community pod, and from the waters where her pod usually roam. Since northern and southern resident whales are genetically, reproductively and even linguistically isolated from each other, Springer does not know how tom communicate with any of our whales. In fact, in the one instance where southern J-pod orcas came down into the Sound last month, Springer was largely ignored, like every other past witnessed event between members of these populations. There is no historical record of whales from these two distinct populations ever intermingling, so it is completely unexpected that Springer will join any of our local pods.

The good news is that Springer appears to be moderately healthy, from a behavioural standpoint. Her energetic display while playing with logs for averages of between 1.5 and 2.5 hours daily in the past week lead us to believe that she is in relatively good shape physically, and that she is developing her muscles accordingly at this age. She did, however, have some prominent 'ketone' scent to her breath, which still suggests that she might still be burning some muscle tissue (protein) instead of fat - a sign that she may still not be eating as properly as she should be. Under normal conditions, there are few ketones in one's system, since they are used as quickly as they are formed. Excess ketone is made by the liver, when blood glucose is kept persistently low, or when glucose uptake into cells is not working efficiently. Researchers on our vessel agree that she still appears to be slightly underweight, but we have all observed her feeding adequately and even playing with salmon, so she clearly isn't starving.

One her physical condition, she seems to have some prominent rake markings on her chin and left eye patch most notably, but they don't seem to be causing her any difficulties. It is assumed that she is getting these rake marks while scratching herself on logs, sticks, etc., which she seems to do quite a bit. She also seem to have skin lesions 'whale pox', a skin virus-like condition that is reasonably common to other species of Cetacea, but that condition doesn't really seem to be affecting her, nor spreading as much as researchers earlier assumed it was. Dr. David Bain, a researcher working with us as a NMFS observer, confirmed that the northern resident orcas tend to rub themselves like this much more frequently then the southern residents do; this might be a result of the environment, i.e, zooplankton or other organisms that are present in the central-northern British Columbia waters, that are not present down in the Puget Sound.

At the moment I write this (evening March 25), NMFS is reporting that they have decided not to take any action with moving Springer. As such, you might hear that some groups are trying to capitalise on fundraising around the calf, but the truth is that no plans are currently even in consideration for the removal of this calf.

Hopefully this report brings some light to the situation with Springer.

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